They were teenage heroines! One of the things I love about writing this blog is that it connects me with interesting people and stories and helps me learn new things. I published a post about our food tour in Toronto in early October and included a picture of the De Grassi Street sign.
De Grassi Street became famous because a long running Canadian teen television drama is set in a fictional high school on the street. I had no idea the street also bears the name of two heroic teenage women until Anne Cohen who works for an online women’s magazine called We Women e-mailed to ask me if she could use my photo of the De Grassi street sign in a slide show for Women’s History month which is celebrated in October.
It didn’t take me long to find several articles online about Charlotte and Cornelia De Grassi. As young children they moved to York in Upper Canada with their Italian father Captain Filipo De Grassi and their British mother Charlotte Hearne. In 1837 when Charlotte was 15 and Cornelia 13, William Lyon McKenzie, a former Toronto mayor and former member of the provincial Parliament led a rebellion against the government of Upper Canada.
Captain De Grassi who supported the government rode to Toronto on a moonlight December night when he heard about the uprising McKenzie was organizing. Charlotte and Cornelia who were both excellent riders joined their Dad. The Lieutenant Governor Francis Head said he needed to know how many rebel troops there were before planning his defense. Charlotte and Cornelia said they would spy on the rebels and report back to Head as to their strength in numbers. Both were wounded as they fled on their ponies when the rebels became suspicious of them.
They were able to report to the Lieutenant Governor that the size of the rebel forces had been greatly exaggerated. Later when the rebels set fire to the Don Bridge Cornelia was the first to notice it and raised the alarm. The rebellion was short-lived and McKenzie spent the next decade in exile in the United States.
McKenzie noted a De Grassi female spy in his written account of the rebellion and their father also wrote about it in the family papers. According to the Canadian Status of Women website the newspaper, The New York Albion carried a story about Cornelia and Charlotte.
Merna Forster also tells their story in her book 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces.
I was unable to find any visual images of Cornelia or Charlotte online. It is one of the times I wish I had artistic talent because I think this story would make a great picture book for young people.
If you liked this post you might also like reading about some other female Canadian Heroines.